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Caged (May 19, 1950)

CagedCaged (1950)
Directed by John Cromwell
Warner Bros.

“Pile out, you tramps. It’s the end of the line.”

With those words we are plunged into the dark, unforgiving world of Caged, a masterpiece of the women-in-prison genre from director John Cromwell.

Caged is a tough, tragic, and intelligent film; it’s hell and gone from the cheap, lurid flicks that would define the women-in-prison genre during the exploitation heyday of the 1960s and ’70s.

Not only is Caged a great drama, it’s also a feminist film. Some of the prisoners in Caged are victims of abusive husbands, many of them were forced into a life of crime by their husbands or boyfriends, and all of them are subject to a justice system run by men. Even the woman with the most power in the film, the reform-minded warden Ruth Benton (Agnes Moorehead), has to answer to the governor and his officious underlings.

Like most prison movies, Caged focuses on a first-time offender, or “fish,” who’s new behind bars and has to learn the ropes. Her name is Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker), and she’s serving time for driving the getaway car for her young husband, who was killed during the commission of a robbery that netted a mere $40. “Five bucks less and it wouldn’t be a felony,” says the woman in the prison office who types up Marie Allen’s intake forms. (The arbitrary and sometimes brutally unfair nature of the criminal justice system is a theme that runs through the film.)

Eleanor Parker

Caged wasn’t the first movie to feature scenes in a women’s prison, but as far as I can tell, it was the first women-in-prison film to take place pretty much completely behind bars.

There were movies in the pre-code 1930s that featured scenes behind bars in women’s prisons. And about a year before Caged was released, Crane Wilbur’s The Story of Molly X (1949) proudly boasted that its prison sequences were filmed in a real women’s correctional facility. But the prison sequences in The Story of Molly X were a relatively small part of the whole film, and were the kind of violent and lurid exploitation most people normally think of when they hear the words “women in prison.”

Caged, on the other hand, is a great film with great performances. It’s a tragic story about a young woman who barely needed rehabilitation in the first place, and yet has everything systemically taken from her until she is a hardened criminal with nothing but criminality to look forward to when she’s released.

There are plenty of filmed women-in-prison stories that I’ve enjoyed, but I honestly can’t think of a smarter or more affecting one than Caged until the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black came around in 2013. However, I haven’t yet seen So Young So Bad, which was released in theaters one day after Caged. It’s the next film I’ll review, and we’ll see how it stacks up.

Caged will be shown on TCM Friday, February 20, 2015, at 1:30 PM (ET).

In a Lonely Place (May 17, 1950)

In a Lonely Place
In a Lonely Place (1950)
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Columbia Pictures

SPOILER ALERT. This review will discuss plot points of this film — and the novel it is based on — that you may not want to know if you haven’t already seen the film and read the novel.

This might come as a surprise to people used to films that slavishly adhere to the smallest details of the novels and comic books they’re adapted from (lest the filmmakers incur the wrath of throngs of nerds on the internet), but movies based on books used to be wildly different from their source material.

The phrase “the book was better” became a cliché for a lot of reasons, but one reason is that during the era of the Hays Code, novels could be much more explicit about sexuality, violence, race, gender, and other “grown-up” issues than Hollywood films could be.

There was probably no way Dorothy B. Hughes’s 1947 novel In a Lonely Place — which is about a man who stalks, rapes, and murders a series of women in postwar Los Angeles — was ever going to make it to the screen with its original plot intact. What’s interesting about Nicholas Ray’s film adaptation, however, is that it fundamentally changes the story while retaining the novel’s exploration of toxic masculinity.

In a Lonely Place 1947

Hughes’s novel is a third-person narrative that never leaves the perspective of Dixon Steele, a World War II veteran who is pretending to write a novel while receiving financial support from a rich uncle.

Dixon — “Dix” to his friends — sponges off a wealthy friend from college, Mel Terriss, who never appears in the novel and is supposedly out of the country. Dix lives in Mel’s apartment, wears his clothes, and charges purchases to his expense account.

One of Dix’s friends from his days in the service, Brub Nicolai, is now an LAPD detective investigating the murders that Dix is committing. Under the guise of “research,” Dix insinuates himself into Brub’s life and into Brub’s investigation. Dix was a pilot in the war, and he became addicted to the thrill of danger when flying missions. When he rides along with the police and returns to the scenes of his crimes, he learns what they know and what they don’t know, and he experiences rushes of adrenaline by pushing his luck.

Bogart

Andrew Solt’s screenplay, from an adaptation by Edmund H. North, retains most of the characters’ original names, but nearly everything else is different in some way. Instead of pretending to write a mystery novel as a cover, in the film version Dixon Steele is a successful screenwriter; or at least he used to be. Instead of being outwardly “normal” and utterly average-looking, the film’s Dix is distinctive-looking, well-known around Los Angeles, and has a police record for violence. Instead of a string of murders, Dixon is suspected of only one; the murder of a checkroom girl he took home one night to help him with a screenplay.

If the producers had been casting for a straight adaptation of the book, I think the perfect choice for Dixon Steele would have been Robert Montgomery, who starred in another adaptation of a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, Ride the Pink Horse (1947). Montgomery was the kind of guy who would be hard to pick out of a police line-up, but he had intense and haunted eyes. He also served in combat in World War II, just like Dixon Steele.

Bogart, on the other hand, is always “Bogie” no matter who he is playing. I don’t mean that he was ever typecast, just that his unique image and his star power were always bigger than the character, at least in the post-Casablanca era. This works for the film version of In a Lonely Place, since Dix is recognized all over Hollywood, mostly by people who dislike him.

Bogart and Grahame

In a Lonely Place is a masterful film from Nicholas Ray, a director who had already made a handful of impressive films in a relatively short career. The changes made to Hughes’s novel all work in the context of the film, since it’s not a film about a murderer, it’s a film about an angry and deeply unhappy man who is unable to control his rage.

In a Lonely Place works on two levels. If you go into it without knowing the ending, you’ll probably spend most of the film trying to guess whether or not Dix is guilty of murder. Bogart’s performance is perfect in this regard. His line “I’ve killed dozens of people … in pictures” rivals Bela Lugosi’s famous line from Dracula (1931), “I never drink … wine.”

Solt’s screenplay originally ended with Dixon — who is innocent of the murder he’s suspected of — strangling his girlfriend, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame). This is a trite conclusion that implies that police railroading “made him do it,” and it’s good that Ray shot a different ending.

What we’re left with is something much more profound. Unlike most Hollywood films, the love of a good woman doesn’t reform Dixon Steele. His rage and his refusal to confront his own propensity for violence drives her away. He is unwilling to confront his own demons, and it damns him to a lifetime alone.

Scandal (April 30, 1950)

Shubun
Scandal (1950)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Shochiku Company

I’ve been a fan of Akira Kurosawa’s films since I saw Ran (1985) on the big screen when I was 12 years old. Like most fans of Kurosawa, I came to his period samurai films first and slowly branched out into his contemporary dramas (like Ikiru) and his crime movies (like High and Low and Stray Dog).

One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about my OCD Viewing project is that it’s given me an excuse to finally sit down and watch some of Kurosawa’s lesser-known films that I might never have gotten around to watching otherwise, like No Regrets for Our Youth (1946) and The Quiet Duel (1949). Neither of those ranks among my favorite Kurosawa films, but I’m happy I saw them, and they gave me a better understanding of his body of work.

Scandal (Shûbun) is another one that didn’t appeal to me very much on paper, but really affected me when I watched it.

Mifune

Scandal stars Toshirô Mifune as a painter named Ichirô Aoye who strikes up an innocent friendship with a famous classical singer, Miyako Saijo (Shirley Yamaguchi), and suddenly finds his name and face splashed all over the tabloid press. His senses of righteousness and decency are both deeply aggrieved, and he proceeds to wage a quixotic war against Asai (Shin’ichi Himori), the sleazy editor of a periodical called Amour.

I love watching Mifune in just about anything, but the real surprise for me in Scandal was the performance of another Kurosawa mainstay, Takashi Shimura, as Hiruta, the lawyer Mifune employs to clear his name.

Hiruta is the most interesting character in the film, and he comes to dominate the film’s second half. Hiruta is a morally compromised character, but this is exactly what makes his story so good. Mifune’s anger is righteous and his character is admirable, but it’s Shimura’s complicated and bittersweet journey that makes Scandal such an affecting film.

Shimura

The year 1950 also saw the release of Rashômon, Kurosawa’s enduring masterpiece about the slippery nature of the truth. It premiered internationally at the 1951 Venice Film Festival, and introduced the world to Kurosawa’s greatness. So in a way, Scandal marks the end of Kurosawa’s early period. I don’t rate it as highly as Drunken Angel (1948) or Stray Dog (1949), but it’s still an excellent film.

Even an average film from Kurosawa is head and shoulders above most directors’ best work. Despite an overabundance of sentimentality and a reliance on a few too many shopworn melodramatic moments, Scandal is a satisfying film full of surprisingly beautiful moments, like an elegiac New Year’s Eve celebration or an average man’s final walk through a city street as just another anonymous human, despite everything we have just seen him go through.

D.O.A. (April 30, 1950)

D.O.A.
D.O.A. (1950)
Directed by Rudolph Maté
Cardinal Pictures / United Artists

The curse of high expectations strikes again.

Don’t get me wrong, D.O.A. is an excellent mystery that moves at a nice pace and has a great concept. But it’s been on my “must see” list since 1988, when the remake with Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan came out, so maybe it was a foregone conclusion that I’d find it a little disappointing. The fact that it’s regularly cited as one of the all-time great film noirs probably didn’t help either.

D.O.A. stars Edmond O’Brien as a big lug with a wandering eye who never took life or love too seriously until the day he was fatally poisoned. Suddenly, his purpose in life becomes crystal clear. He has to solve his own murder before he dies.

O'Brien

The characters O’Brien plays, Frank Bigelow, is an accountant in the small town of Banning, California. He’s been carrying on an affair with his confidential secretary, Paula Gibson (Pamela Britton), but she seems much more serious about their future than he does. Bigelow tells her he’s pulling away from her because he doesn’t want to see her get hurt. When Bigelow suddenly has to travel up to San Francisco on business, she sees it as an opportunity for him to decide whether he’s serious about her or not. He sees it as a chance to paint the town red.

Bigelow goes out for a wild night on the town with a bunch of soused guys and gals who are in town for Market Week. He winds up at The Fisherman, a jumping jazz club where Bigelow doesn’t fit in with the “jive-crazy” patrons. (Neither does the bartender, who admits to Bigelow that he doesn’t “get it.” He’s a Guy Lombardo fan.) At the bar, a mysterious figure drops something in Bigelow’s bourbon and fades away into the night.

Sick to his stomach the next morning, Bigelow visits a doctor and finds out he has ingested a “luminous toxin,” a poison that attacks the organs. Bigelow only has a day or two to live … a week at the most.

O'Brien and Brand

D.O.A. is a well-made and entertaining B movie, and has lots of great footage of both San Francisco and Los Angeles, but I just can’t rate it as highly as the film noirs I consider masterpieces, like Detour (1945) and Out of the Past (1947). With those movies, there’s a sense of existential dread below the surface. They work on more than one level, I find myself coming back to them over and over, and they haunt my imagination.

I was expecting something similar with D.O.A., but O’Brien galumphs through the proceedings like a man with a hangover, angrily shaking down suspects and browbeating people for leads. After the poisoning, the film moves at a nice clip, but I never got the sense that Frank Bigelow was a man who was truly facing death. I also found the supporting characters mostly uninteresting, and Bigelow’s verbal exchanges with them were too often just information dumps.

I watched D.O.A. twice, but I still can’t really keep any of the supporting characters straight. The only person who really stands out for me is Neville Brand as Chester, a sadistic henchman who refers to himself in the third person.

After I watched D.O.A., I thought back to another B noir that starred Edmond O’Brien, The Web (1947). D.O.A. is considered an all-time classic, and every fan of film noirs has heard of it. The Web, on the other hand, seems mostly forgotten. But The Web has a better villain (Vincent Price), a much more interesting female lead (Ella Raines), and dialogue that is much more clever and entertaining than the dialogue in D.O.A.

So why is D.O.A. so highly regarded, while The Web is a movie no one remembers? I really think it comes down to the fact that D.O.A. has a crackerjack concept. The beginning and end of the film are incredibly strong, but I just didn’t find the film as a whole to be all that it’s cracked up to be.

Wagon Master (April 19, 1950)

Wagon Master

Wagon Master (1950)
Directed by John Ford
Argosy Pictures / RKO Radio Pictures

I have mixed feelings about John Ford.

I absolutely love some of his films, and consider them masterpieces, but he also made a lot of films that I’m not crazy about even though every other classic film fan seems to revere them, like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).

After watching Wagon Master, which was the western that Ford directed after She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, I’m beginning to think that my expectations might play some role. (In between these two westerns, Ford directed the comedy When Willie Comes Marching Home, which I haven’t seen.)

High expectations and the reverence of others can sometimes make a film tough to enjoy. I thought that She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was stunningly photographed, and I liked some of the performances, but overall I found it poorly paced, historically inaccurate, and unbearably sentimental. I also really didn’t like John Wayne’s performance. I love it when the Duke plays variations on himself, but whenever he plays a “character” I find it hard to watch. His role as Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon isn’t as bad as when he played Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1956), but I still found his “old man” schtick disingenuous and poorly acted.

Johnson and Bond

Wagon Master, on the other hand, is a film almost no one ever talks about. When I sat down to watch it, I had no expectations, nor anyone else’s reverence to contend with.

I really enjoyed it. I thought it was a poetic and leisurely paced western that I’d love to see again some day. Unlike Ford’s last two westerns, which were both shot in Technicolor, Wagon Master is shot in black and white. (At least until the 1960s, I think I prefer my westerns in black and white.)

In Wagon Master, Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr., who both had supporting roles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, play a pair of horse traders named Travis and Sandy.

They’re approached by a group of Mormons who are led by a recent convert to the faith, Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond), whose constant struggle to not use profanity is a running joke in the film. The group of Mormons are heading west through desolate stretches and need experienced range riders like Travis and Sandy to guide them. The Mormons plan to found a settlement and begin growing crops so a much larger group of their brethren will be able to join them in their promised land a year later.

The range is full of dangers, including human ones, who come in the form of the murderous Clegg gang. They’re led by Uncle Shiloh Clegg (Charles Kemper). If you pay close attention you’ll spot future Gunsmoke star James Arness as another member of the gang, Floyd Clegg.

Kemper and Arness

The Clegg gang is menacing, but there are also friendly strangers who join the wagon train along their journey — a drunken snake-oil salesman named Dr. A. Locksley Hall (Alan Mowbray) and his two female companions, Fleuretty Phyffe (Ruth Clifford) and Denver (Joanne Dru).

Perhaps if I were to proclaim Wagon Master a masterpiece, it would collapse under the weight of my approbation. But I thoroughly enjoyed it, and thought it was a beautifully made film that unfolds at a perfect pace.

I especially enjoyed seeing Ben Johnson come into his own as an actor. The Oklahoma-born Johnson was a ranch hand and rodeo rider in real life, and he’s convincing and charismatic in this role. I liked his supporting role in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, but he carries the film here, and emerges as a great western star. He has no false bravado or unrealistic heroics, and even decides against pulling his gun at several times when the audience might expect him to.

Orpheus (March 1, 1950)

Orpheus
Orpheus (1950)
Directed by Jean Cocteau
André Paulvé Film / DisCina

Back in 2004, I visited the exhibit Jean Cocteau: Enfant terrible at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. It was a wonderful show, and introduced me to Cocteau’s drawings, none of which I’d seen before, and many of which were pornographic enough to be squirreled away in a special section of the exhibit with dim red lights and a warning to parents outside. The show also featured some original costumes from Cocteau’s masterpiece, La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) (1946), which I’ve loved since I first saw it in high school.

The exhibit also introduced me to Cocteau’s hour-long film The Blood of a Poet (Le sang d’un poète) (1932). It’s a beautiful and surreal little work of art, with lots of in-camera special effects that Cocteau would use again in La Belle et la Bête and in Orpheus (Orphée) (1950), which is a follow-up of sorts to The Blood of a Poet. (Together with Cocteau’s 1959 film Testament of Orpheus, the three films comprise what is commonly referred to as “The Orphic Trilogy.”)

Jean Marais

Orpheus stars Cocteau’s longtime lover Jean Marais, and is loosely based on the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus, the musician who traveled to the underworld to save his wife, Eurydice.

Marais plays a poet named Orphée (the French version of the name “Orpheus”), who travels between different realms of reality — first against his will and later quite purposefully. As I said, Cocteau’s Orpheus is only loosely based on the myth of Orpheus. For Cocteau, that tale is just a jumping-off point for his visual poetry, and his musings on life, death, dreams, art, and love.

Orpheus is a beautiful film, but it’s also a very funny one. Cocteau’s arch, camp sensibility is fully on display here, and the most heartbreaking part of the original myth of Orpheus — the doom that awaits if he turns around and looks at his beloved when they exit the underworld — is played mostly for laughs in Cocteau’s Orpheus, and becomes just one more domestic annoyance that the great poet must deal with.

I loved Orpheus, although it’s definitely not a film for everyone. This is a movie in which Death takes the form of a beautiful woman (María Casares) who travels in a Rolls Royce and is attended by two motorcyclists whose leather get-ups look like something out of a Tom of Finland cartoon or a film by Kenneth Anger.

The Baron of Arizona (March 1, 1950)

The Baron of Arizona
The Baron of Arizona (1950)
Directed by Samuel Fuller
Lippert Pictures

Samuel Fuller didn’t suffer from sophomore slump when he directed his second picture, The Baron of Arizona. It’s every bit as good as his first film, I Shot Jesse James (1949), and boasts a great lead performance by Vincent Price and gorgeous black & white cinematography by James Wong Howe.

James Wong Howe is arguably the greatest cinematographer of black & white films of all time, and Fuller was lucky to get him at a low rate. The Baron of Arizona had a small budget and was shot in just 15 days, but it looks like an “A” picture. The cinematography is a big part of this, and Price’s pitch-perfect performance as a louche swindler is another.

Price plays James Addison Reavis, a real historical figure who attempted to defraud the U.S. government by forging land grants in order to take possession of more than 18,000 square miles of the central Arizona Territory and the western New Mexico Territory in the late 19th century.

Vincent Price is best known today as a horror icon, so many people forget that he wasn’t always associated with the horror genre. I always enjoy watching his early performances (and listening to him play “The Saint” on the radio), and the character he plays in The Baron of Arizona is perfectly suited to his talents.

Price was an actor who always seemed to be chuckling at a joke that none of the other actors in the film were privy to, and that quality works perfectly for the character he plays in The Baron of Arizona.

With just two films as a director under his belt, Samuel Fuller was already establishing himself as a filmmaker who could make entertaining, fast-moving, low-budget pictures that had hidden depths. Just like I Shot Jesse James, The Baron of Arizona uses the tropes of the western to turn an American myth on its head.

The Baron of Arizona takes the classic American idea of the “self-made man” and draws it out to its most audacious and unethical conclusion.

Vincent Price

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